I have a new student. Teaching him is the most rewarding thing that I do in my week just now. He has been ill, really quite ill for more than a decade. His body is weak and wonky and he has a prolapsed disc in his lower back, an unhealthily tilted pelvis and a smorgasbord of ailments all over his body. When I arrive, his breath moves only in the very top of his chest, and as he speaks his breath comes in short gasps that interrupt his sentences and make it sound like he has just stopped running, even though he is standing there totally at rest in the middle of his living room. He always starts by telling me how he has been – what has been hurting, what has been pulled, which part of himself has twanged or feels out of joint. He hurts himself at the gym, or when he is standing for too long talking to a friend in a bar, or at the cinema when he sits still for more than half an hour. He has stomach pain and bloating, for which he takes medicine that gives him migraines. He has been living with pain for a long time. For almost as long as my son has been alive. He has tried ignoring it. He has tried doing something about it. He has been to doctors and consultants and physiotherapists and personal trainers and pilates teachers. He has become an expert on the vagaries of his body. But he is still in pain.
Then he went on holiday and there were free yoga classes in the hotel, so he went along to a couple of them and he felt different. He loved it. And when he lay in savasana at the end of the class, it was as though something within him had come to life again; he felt more at ease in his body than he had done for years; he was relaxed.
When he got home he called me.
What is so very rewarding about teaching this man is that when I arrive in his house he is pale and his body is tight, usually he is in pain. But after an hour of very gentle and specific yoga his face has a healthful flush, he is smiling and his eyes are shining. When I look at him after he has practised I can believe in reincarnation, for his body loves and responds to yoga in such a profound way that it is as though he has practised yoga in a former life. I look at him and the clarity in his eyes and I think to myself that his body is crying out for yoga; he soaks it up like a sponge; his energy starts to move again; he looks and feels better. It is a wonderful thing to witness.
I don’t teach him every week (he is not always around) and sometimes with a private student, this can be frustrating… they don’t see you for three weeks and they don’t practise in between times, so every lesson is the first lesson. It is potentially frustrating for me and for them. But every time I leave this student, I leave him with a simple programme of very specific exercises to open and strengthen his body and to improve his breathing and he does it; he actually finds time every day to do at least some yoga.
His body knows what his mind is catching up with – that he has already been all around the houses seeking a cure and an explanation for his pain; he has a masters degree in the workings of his own body; but in his yoga practice he is learning how to do the most beneficial, the most important thing that any of us can do in our lives, he is learning how to listen to his own body; how to tune into his own innate wisdom about himself; he is learning how to be well.
I love that he approaches his practice with absolute humility: not for him the gymnastics and egocentric contortions that many of us seek from yoga asana, particularly in the beginning, he wants to work simply and steadily and to build his strength slowly and with patience, he knows that the gifts of yoga will not come in a flash; he knows that there are no quick fixes for him (for anyone). But he has felt within himself that yoga works and he has taken responsibility for his practice and for his own recovery. He continues to seek the advice of doctors and health professionals and to heed it, but only in addition to what he hears from his own self.
I am so grateful to be able to teach this man and am reminded every time I leave that we teach what we most need to learn, and that our students teach us more than we could ever hope to teach them. His humility, openness and beginner’s mind are an inspiration; the glow of his cheeks when I leave, the deeper resonance of his breath, the greater ease with which he moves are a testament to his commitment to practice; he wants to find a way to help himself be well and the path that has found him is yoga. It is my very great fortune to be able, in some small measure, to help him on his way.